‘Understanding the Environment Innovation Happens In’
Emilia Javorsky ('10) Alumna; Physician-Scientist
Hometown: Watertown, MA (“I’ve boomeranged to different places over the course of my career and I always seem to come back.”)
Breakfast: Oatmeal and a fruit cup
You’re being recognized in the Forbes Healthcare “30 Under 30“ for innovation. What’s your approach?
Currently the way a lot of medical innovation works is technology driven. It starts with someone developing a new technology solution, and then trying to find medical problems to use it for. I’m part of the school of thought that takes the converse approach, very much in line with design thinking frameworks. Let’s start with problems that patients face, and really understand those problems, what’s causing them, why they’re occurring, when they occur, and then see what would be the best approach to a solution. It’s only after you understand the problem that you go out and work with people with different areas of technical expertise to see what strategies may provide the best solution.
What are the advantages of working that way?
Firstly, you know that you’re solving a truly unmet need and designing a solution tailored to the problem. One thing you often realize is that you may not have to develop a new technology at all. There may be something that’s used in another specialty or another industry that could be easily adapted and repurposed for the problem at hand. You see a lot of this repurposing work in the global health space: given the resource constraints they’re working with, some really cool and creative solutions have been developed using what already exists to solve problems.
If something doesn’t require de novo development it dramatically decreases R and D costs, which hopefully means it can be more cost-effective to deliver to patients. There’s a burgeoning field now of drug repurposing: Many generics have only been investigated for a single application, but we don’t know what these safe and well-tolerated molecules might do in another disease space or in combination with other drugs.
Do you see a link between your studying public health—with a focus on health policy and management—and this approach?
Absolutely, because once you define a problem really well, then you start thinking, “How does this problem exist in the broader ecosystem of healthcare?” When developing a solution, you may get the clinical problem right or the science right, but then there are all of these other factors involved in getting your product to patients, from the intellectual property considerations to regulation, reimbursement, or comparative efficacy. That’s in addition to determining whether this is something that is needed, something that customers would be interested in using. Those are all things that I learned from the School of Public Health.
How has your time at SPH influenced your career path?
I most definitely would not be in this line of work if not for my time at the School of Public Health. Prior to matriculating at SPH my only exposure to the macro-level factors in medicine had been a bioethics course in undergrad. All of my coursework and research was in basic science. It wasn’t until I was at SPH that I became fascinated with the fact that the science of medicine and the practice of medicine are two parts of the large, complex ecosystem that is healthcare in the United States. And I realized that I loved it.
There was a point where I was wondering whether I still wanted to go to medical school, but I realized that there was a need to marry the science and practice of medicine with an understanding of the environment that innovation happens in.
Growing up in Watertown, did you expect to wind up back in your hometown?
No one in the family was in health care—my dad was a natural history photographer, my mom a public school art teacher—so I was completely isolated from the fact that I lived in this world capital of healthcare innovation. That was a pleasant surprise for me, because I didn’t have to make the decision between moving to the best place for my profession and living in my home city with its great quality of life, because luckily those two happen to be the same place.
As someone who didn’t come from a background—socioeconomically or in terms of a network—that had any relevance to health care or health innovation, I deeply appreciate all of the people who believed in me and took a chance on me throughout my career. Being selected for the Forbes class of 2017 was such a tremendous honor, but it reminded me that it wasn’t just me, it was the sum of all of the people who believed in me, gave me mentorship, and provided me with opportunities along the way.
Emilia Javorsky (’10) is visiting SPH for a dinnertime discussion of healthcare innovation on Tuesday, February 7, 5–6 p.m. Learn more and RSVP here.